Summary and Analysis
In early 1946, Weili is again determined to run away from her marriage, taking Danru with her even if it means poverty for them. Before she leaves, she wants to visit her aunts on Tsungming Island. After she and Danru both recover from jaundice acquired on their trip from Kunming to Shanghai, she takes him to visit the aunts. They are kind and welcoming amidst their own disappointments and losses. Weili learns that Peanut, a Communist now, ran away from her own marriage and was divorced by her husband. Each of the aunts secretly gives Weili Peanut's address in Shanghai.
Back home after her two weeks on Tsungming Island, Weili secretly goes to visit Peanut, who is now living in a dirty and crowded section of Shanghai. Along the street near Peanut's house, she accidentally encounters Jimmy Louie, whom she has not seen since the Christmas dance in 1941. He insists, "We loved each other from the moment we met, that's why our two wills joined together to find each other." Over tea, he restates his love and she tells him "how everything has changed, but nothing has become better" for her. She confides in him about the unfortunate circumstances of her entire family and about her intention to find Peanut, but she says little about Wen Fu. Jimmy is still unmarried, although he carries a picture of four young women in one family, any of whom would make a good wife for him. They talk so long, it becomes too late for her to meet Peanut. They agree to meet again the following morning before she visits Peanut. Jimmy leaves the picture of the four women on the table.
The next day, everything seems to conspire against her getting away for the rendezvous, but she finally arrives at their meeting place an hour and a half late. She is overwhelmed with joy to find him still waiting for her.
Weili finally tells Jimmy about Wen Fu and that she is visiting Peanut to find out more about getting a divorce. Jimmy walks with her to Peanut's house and says he will wait for her to talk with Peanut, regardless of how long it takes.
Peanut is pleased to see her. Not only is she a Communist activist, but she and the mother of a girl they both knew (Little Yu) operate this house as a way station for women running from their marriages. Peanut tells about her own marriage to a man who was homosexual and may have been a hermaphrodite — a person with both male and female genitals. The man's family did not want her to divorce him, so she ran away, and eventually he divorced her.
Weili eats a meal with Peanut, Little Yu's mother, and several other women in their house. She hears their stories and they hear hers. Peanut urges her to take all the money and jewelry she can when she leaves home.
Jimmy is still waiting for her outside Peanut's, and she announces to him that she will run away from Wen Fu with Danru. They work out a signal by telephone after which Jimmy will meet her and take her to Peanut's house temporarily.
Back at her father's house, Weili worries about what will happen to her father after she leaves. Although she has little hope he will understand, she tells him secretly that she is running away and doesn't expect his forgiveness. His reaction first appears angry but is in fact an attempt to show her where he has hidden three small gold ingots in the bottom rod of the scroll painting he had damaged when the Japanese came to him. Astounded, she accepts the gold but hides it temporarily in the rod.
The next morning, she tells the family that Old Aunt is very sick and she needs to go to Tsungming Island again. San Ma encourages her (probably realizing what is happening), but no one else seems to care. The next morning, she takes a small suitcase into which she puts the gold pieces and leaves the house with Danru.
Much of Chapter 23 is narrated as though Winnie were showing Pearl a photograph album of pictures taken by Jimmy during the period that followed her escape from Wen Fu. Weili and Danru first go to Peanut's house, where Little Yu's mother tries to send her and Danru away from Shanghai and Wen Fu. Jimmy objects, and instead they go to live with him, remaining in Shanghai. For several months, they are all very happy and virtually carefree. In the meantime, Peanut informs the aunts that Weili is living with another man, and the news eventually reaches Wen Fu. Meanwhile, he is turning more and more of Jiang Sao-yen's money and possessions into worthless "new money." With the last of her dowry, Weili hires a lawyer to arrange for the divorce. The lawyer's office is vandalized and the divorce paper signed by Wen Fu is destroyed, apparently by Wen Fu's henchmen. Weili and Jimmy decide to send Danru north to Harbin to be with Hulan and Auntie Du, out of the reach of Wen Fu.
On one of the most tragic days of her life, Weili is visited by Auntie Du, who tells her that Danru has died in an epidemic which also claimed Jiaguo.
Weili is unexpectedly arrested and sent to a women's prison for stealing her husband's son and letting him die, for stealing valuables from her husband's family, and for deserting her husband. Wen Fu, it is said, has filled the ears of the authorities, including the American consul, with lies and half-truths. Without the divorce papers she claims Wen Fu signed, the judge sentences her to two years in prison unless she goes back to Wen Fu. She chooses prison.
Auntie Du brings her basic clothing, a few personal items, and the newspaper with headlines about her now infamous love affair with an American soldier. The story built from Wen Fu's lies soon results in Jimmy's being asked to leave China. He promises to return for her in two years.
Although the prison cells are primitive, Weili not only learns to survive, but she helps make life better for other women prisoners. She teaches some of them to read and write, she shows them ways to speak and act properly, and she introduces them to ways to keep themselves and their quarters neater and cleaner. Both guards and prisoners become her friends and confidantes. She learns that Min has committed suicide, that Peanut and Little Yu's mother have been forced to leave Shanghai, and finally that her father has died after he made a final conscious effort to mislead Wen Fu into thinking that gold was hidden in the house walls. San Ma and Wu Ma are leaving the family house to live in Wu Ma's brother's home. The final memento in the album is the telegram Weili sent to Jimmy in the U.S., asking if she can come to America to be his wife.
These four chapters exemplify Weili's emergence as a strong, self-motivated woman, unique for her generation and time. From her determination to end her marriage to Wen Fu, to her kind, quiet authority in improving the quality of prison life and the individual lives of several prisoners, Weili reveals the self-assurance and unflinching motivation which have surfaced and now empower the uncertain, naive girl abandoned by her mother long ago and thrown into the role of feudal wife to a psychotic man.
The group of women in transition at Peanut's house both challenge and support Weili's determination. One of them reminds her, for example, that giving up old forms of pride may free her from misery. Her acceptance of this special group's logic helps not only in her flight from Wen Fu, but in her move toward Jimmy Louie. From that afternoon on, Weili and Jimmy become "two people talking with one heart."
Jimmy Louie has perceived Weili's hidden strengths from the beginning, referring to her as a woman "who could do anything; dance with broken shoes or in your bare feet. Fragile-looking, yet strong and brave, the kind of person nothing could stop." To Jimmy Louie, Weili's strength is the pragmatic sort — the assessment of what is possible and what is too costly for her spirit to survive. Putting his adoration into moral support, Jimmy Louie enables her to view herself as a winner, a term echoed by the nickname, Winnie, he gave her in 1941 (and, ironically, by the name Victor offered to Wen Fu, but which Wen Fu spurned as not good enough). To be a winner, Weili must negotiate with reality, make hard choices, and abandon valued portions of the past, notably the last days of Jiang's life and her home in Shanghai.
Having looked for escape with the help of Hulan and Auntie Du, her father, her aunts, Peanut, and even Jimmy Louie, the focal issue becomes clear: Weili must rely on her own inner strengths and stop looking for outside rescue from her failed marriage.
Throughout the novel, Tan has used minor characters to play critical parts, like cameo players in films. In these chapters, for example, Little Yu's mother plays a significant role in Weili's plans. In Chapter 16, the concubine Min becomes an early focus for Weili's kindness, teaching, and even admiration, and in the current chapters, the report of Min's death helps Weili realize that her own strength may be greater than what she perceived in Min.
Weili experiences the extremes of emotion in short order: from joy with Jimmy and Danru, to despair and guilt over Danru's death away from her, followed soon by a chain of miseries — her arrest, her unjust trial and public humiliation, her imprisonment, and the banishment of Jimmy from China. The judge states the ultimate in feudal justice: "a husband has the right to sue a wife for taking his property and his son." Pronounced guilty by the court, Weili has her own little ironic victory when she chooses two years in prison over "freedom" under the tyranny of her abusive husband.
The motif of material resources is a significant adjunct to the story of Chinese women, who pass from feudalism to nationalism to Japanese colonialism to communism with little change in their social status. On Weili's arrival at Tsungming Island, for example, while Old Aunt and New Aunt beam at their niece, Weili witnesses the sad spectacle of an older generation worn down by the perils and hardships of Japanese occupation.
Ironically, part of Weili's ability to withstand the war and make her own way derives from a holdover from patriarchal times — her dowry, the money that Jiang deposits in a Shanghai bank for her personal use. She alone controls her dowry, although some of it falls into Wen Fu's hands and disappears over the gambling table or for buying a jalopy, while Weili uses much of it to lessen their wartime privations. By New Year 1945, Weili has drawn heavily against the four thousand yuan over the eight years of her marriage. The wartime economy reduces the surviving sum to a few hundred American dollars in value. After moving in with Jimmy Louie, Weili is glad that his salary is in American dollars rather than Chinese currency and that her jewelry and few valuable possessions can be converted into liquid assets, a more trustworthy form of empowerment than reliance on relatives, superstition, lovers, or governments.
A strong dramatic irony springs from the pantomimed defiance of Jiang Sao-yen. When suborned by materialistic Japanese officials who finger his antiques and urge him to comply with the Emperor Hirohito as an example to other Chinese patriots, Jiang replies — prophetically without words — by tossing tea on the representation of spring in a valuable four-part scroll series, three of which Wen Fu later sells. After a stroke afflicts Jiang with the inability to speak, he communicates through gestures. He acknowledges the intent of his defiant daughter to run away by opening the rod of the damaged scroll and handing her his cache of gold. Approving of her actions but unable to verbalize his thoughts, he has observed Wen Fu's Machiavellian behavior and makes no effort to overrule Weili's decision to flee a lawful feudal marriage. Reaching back into the spring scene, Weili conceals the three small ingots once more until her plans are complete. Like spring buds themselves, the ingots lie in their protective covering until the time is right for Weili's blossoming. Finally, even at the very end of his life, her father's defiance plays one final joke that causes Wen Fu to start tearing the house apart looking for non-existent gold in the walls.
opium a milky white addictive substance extracted from the unripe seed pod of the poppy. A folk remedy and anesthetic from ancient times, pure opium is so hazardous to health that China attempted to exterminate the profitable opium trade in the eighteenth century, when demand for the drug spread to Europe.
river crabs The refugees' contraction of jaundice, a symptom of liver malfunction, suggests a potentially virulent type of schistosomiasis or bilharziasis caused by a common water-borne parasite that invades the liver, spreading infection, diminishing the organ's ability to cleanse the blood of impurities, and often resulting in death.
ginseng root the major, costly palliative of Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia, which for a thousand years has been revered as a tonic to increase mental and physical capacities and to curb the loss of faculties in old age.
rope lattice frames Chinese beds utilize hemp rope as cheap, adjustable bedsprings. As the hemp stretches, it is tightened or replaced with stronger material to hold the mattress level.
American Consulate General the jurisdiction of American authority in mutual American-Chinese affairs. After World War II, the office was governed by an appointed ambassador who spoke for U.S. President Harry S. Truman.
bittermelon a round, green, seed-filled member of the squash family that resembles a sweet melon and is dried and served like a vegetable, usually as an accompaniment to beef. To Weili and the other runaway wives, the melon symbolizes the bitterness they must swallow as a part of an unhappy life.